"I want you to show me your wounds""I want you to show me your wounds"
I was lured into poetry by e.e. cummings and Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Not because I knew anything about poetics but because their verse literally jumped off the page at me and into me, began immediately dismantling all I knew of sentence structure, began reinventing words. Eye and ear opening, to put it mildly. And it was while in the company of these fellows, cummings in particular, that I was first steered toward the poet Kenneth Patchen. Perhaps while we were asleep spooning together. I just can't say for sure.
The Reading Loop. I like what Jennifer Bartlett wrote: "The purpose of a reading loop is to investigate how one poet, one poem, one concept leads to other concepts, other poems, other poets."
Where to start? The first poet to appear for me once I boarded the Reading Loop train was, oddly enough, Kenneth Patchen. Patchen was not born with a disability — he acquired one through a series of accidents and/or the mockery of the fates. Yes, shit does indeed happen.
I knew very little about him when he and I met in a used bookstore somewhere in Santa Cruz. I must have been 17 or 18. We met because one Kathy Cytron, whose name is still inscribed on the inside cover of The Journal of Albion Moonlight in pencil, had decided to release him. I met him because of a spine, because of the word 'Albion' which was a word I had not seen before anywhere; the words 'Journal' and 'Albion' both occupying the same half-inch spine, the white letters against the matte black.
(Brief aside: would the Net have driven Patchen insane with grief and despair? With its immediacy. With its vast rabbit holes. With its very public displays of people's inhumanity to other peoples. The Net is and continues to be a bold and beautiful tool by which the world is delivered with a click and a swipe and I've no doubt Patchen would have been tickled by that…but then again… The hand to hand connections are largely archaic, the chemical response of a handshake or holding hands or of a caress is being subsumed by videos of other people's lives, people we don't know and people you can't ever know or see for they have ceded their identity to the device.)
Ok, ok. Aside over.
The Journal of Albion Moonlight is not a book of poems in the traditional sense; it doesn't move from 1 poem to the next. However, there are poems in it, sometimes in the margins and sometimes written into the structure of the prose narrative. Sometimes pasted in as pictures.
The book was written just as the United States moved headfirst into WWII. Here PTSD becomes a Present phenomenon, a real-time event. An excavation of soul and a coring of the psyche that IS happening as one is turning pages.
I did not like the name Kenneth. But Patchen was sticky, active, viral before viral became the thing to be in the 21st century. I slid it out from the shelf and marveled at the cover, which looked as though it could have been taken from one of my own journals after a particularly manic session. The New Directions Paperback I held was published in 1961 with what appears to be a 10pt. font size. The back cover says that the book was 'inspired' by the anonymous mad song / poem Tom O' Bedlam; lunatic fringe circa early 17th century indeed.
The following lines from Tom O' Bedlam grace the back cover of the Journal:
"…By a knight of ghosts and shadows
I liked the phrase "…am to tourney…" I found it an appealing summons of sorts. I liked the crispiness of the T's. I liked the word "Albion", though again, at the time I had no idea what it meant. Another quest.
Reading the book itself – for the experimental and impressionable young Sean — proved quite the surreal mixed-media psychedelic experience. The 'Journal' starts off traditionally enough in terms of composition and construction, but soon all the screws and ligature and tape and glue are removed and what remains, for me anyway, is as close a facsimile to war as anything else I've read or seen on the subject. But is it an anti-war Manifesto or a much broader treatise on art and sex and God and truth and brutality?
This is a but a small sampling from the Journal but I think it speaks to both Patchen the poet and Patchen the pacifist. I am including the few lines that precede what is commonly known as the poem The Artist's Duty, of which I am only including the first 16 lines:
"All were unhurt save one; Albion Moonlight was on the earth, his mouth pressed to hers, his blackened limbs
rigid beside the bloody axe which he had used to humble them. A great shining arm stretched out across the valley
of his beautiful and disfigured sorrow.
To extend all boundaries
To fog them in right over the plate
To kill only what is ridiculous
To establish problem
To ignore solutions
To listen to no one
To omit nothing
To contradict everything
To generate the free brain
To bear no cross
To take part in no crucifixion
To tinkle a warning when mankind strays
To explode upon all parties
To wound deeper than the soldier
To heal this poor obstinate monkey once and for all…
The Artist's Duty goes on for another two-plus pages. Just after the laundry list, or litany if you prefer, of The Artist's Duty ends Patchen writes:
"I am sick as a buggered pig with all this mess"
Which I find very interesting.
Patchen suffered his first spinal injury in 1937, 4 years prior to the Journal's publication, but from which he was unable to ever find permanent relief. He is also said to have refused painkillers for his various back traumas, fearing that his senses — his creative self - would be dulled in the process. And he could easily be referring to the unfolding war, but I prefer to think of the line as a mirror of sorts, one that allows for both the micro and the macro of the world and all creatures set within it to be pristine relics, broken yet priceless. I have not scoured all of his works looking for allusions to injury and disability. But there are occasional lines here and there which lead one to believe that the world's mass of infirmity was, in many ways, inseparable from his own.
"This room, this battlefield"
That line comes from one of the picture poems in the book But Even So. Kenneth was confined to bed by this time in his life. His wife Miriam supplied him with materials.
I'm reasonably sure that most people refer to the poem as " Alas, I remember what never happened…" but honestly it truly is anybody's guess as to the title; the way it is scrawled in the book, looping back over itself, in and out of the margins, above and under the paint. It's beautiful. It's anguish in color. What follows is one take on the intended 'order' of the poem:
Alas, I remember what never happened — I am not a silver-bearded king Nor yet am I any man's slave / my fist against all enemies of live / the light Fills this room on the table a tiny bell, water glass, papers covered with writ- Ing — The Human Winter — I Wonder Ever Became of Human Beings / a tiny bell a water glass pens ink paints / The Evil Grows / Dear god the world it's still here — They're trying but / LETTERS FOR MIRIAM / I remember running through summer fields when I was, oh say, twelve — and as I ran I'd put new words to the tunes of the poems which my grandfather said for Me — he was an Irishman raised in Scotland — I never said "my" words to Him — my fist against them / Darkness outside the window of this room — yes, "my" words. I've many now that are not for saying / O light upon this table / The tunes are from life the anger the anguish this room the staring of these Walls O dear & patient hands shaped to my care O beautiful eyes filled with Tears for me / AH, NO SILVER-BEARDED KING NOR YET A SLAVE*DEAR GOD*THE TINY BELL THE*WATER GLASS*LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS / This Room, this battlefield
Patchen was Beat before Beat was.
He embraced a divinity — the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit lurk and creep on almost every page of his poetry and prose. Yet he does not appear submissive to 'it'; rather he is like a Mobius strip continually feeding the Eucharist of himself to himself. He was in love with truth and beauty. Pacifist to the core.
Patchen's poetry drew from these themes as well as jazz and art. And much like be-bop, there are lines in his poems that seem out of place; stunning for their uniqueness, as if they were born out of heat and pressure far below the earth.
The poem "Be Music, Night" contains one such example:
Be music, night,
A simple love poem, but near the end Patchen drops the line:
" …That her living may find its weather… "
That anybody's living days, anyone's life, can find the weather under which to endure. The hope that any of us living and dying creatures can find our place within variable atmospheres is metaphysically huge. And that is when readers are won over, when enthusiasts are made.
Patchen's muse, wife, and longtime companion Miriam, to whom all of his work was dedicated, had MS and diabetes. This I did not know until I was researching. And it would appear that, for the last 10-12 years of his life (Patchen died in 1972), Miriam was not only his muse but his primary caregiver and the family breadwinner as well. Amazing person, to say the least. I wonder though, or am left to wonder, if Kenneth's dependence on Miriam left him suffering an emasculation of sorts, and could that same emasculation, or even anger, begun many years prior during the period of time before the writing of the Journal? His letters of the day were with other men only it seems, other poets and writers. And all too often still, even after the 19th Amendment, women were considered accompaniments, tokens, prizes.
I want to show you something. The following poem if from one of Patchen's later collections entitled When We Were Here Together (1957):
And I, Too, Am Something of a Stranger Here, My Friend
Rather melancholy isn't it? Despondent? Regretful? Rueful even? Are there hints of Patchen's, even a whole era of man-speak ethos, tucked into those lines?
It has been reported that the Patchens were "poverty stricken" for the last decade of Kenneth's life. I imagine that Kenneth hated to leave her, hated to have to say goodbye despite his beliefs and convictions, hated that his deep love for Miriam would no longer have a sensorial component. Perhaps only then did he wish for something to dull the very real physical aches and pains.
And while we are listing so near the isle of MS, we will shift direction a bit so that we may talk of Nancy Mairs, who was a poet before she gained a measure of much deserved renown as an essayist. In many pieces on Feminist Theory one will often find the work of Nancy Mairs cited alongside that of Adrienne Rich and Helen Gurley Brown and Audre Lord. Work that is not only well written, but incisive and bold.
But I don't really want to focus on her work as a writer as much as I want to briefly explore her relationship with her husband George, who served as Nancy's primary caregiver. The Mairs' infidelities are well documented thanks to Nancy's bravura as a writer, a documenter of feelings and actions and sensations and faith. Whether born of frustration in their respective roles of caregiver/invalid, or, as a woman I know commented on an early draft, "… is infidelity always just an expression of frustration with the co-dependent, unhealthy attachment many marriages devolve into?"
It makes me wonder about the Patchens. No doubt it has been said many times that poets, generally speaking and brushing broadly, are licentious critters. And no doubt that this is sometimes true. But not always.
The Journal of Albion Moonlight is frighteningly violent at times. And many times the violent interludes are very pointedly directed at women. The Journal is allegory, written as America was about to enter into the theater of global war. Again.
There does not seem to be any path of letters or earmarked journal entries recapitulating that Kenneth and Miriam Patchen struggled through episodes of infidelity. It's a decades long stretch to make the case that Kenneth harbored this anger towards women that we saw in the Journal up until and through his final 12 or so years as a bedridden poet-painter. Did he bury a resentment toward Miriam in words and colors?
"This room, this battlefield"
No written trail that I know of anyway. Miriam was not Nancy. Nor was Kenneth George, for that matter.
I don't believe that KP was a misogynist and good god, I hope that I don't sound like an apologist. But he wrote episodes of violence, of sexual use and abuse of women against the drapery of a world war in the pages of the wildly surreal Journal. You are what you write?
Nancy Mairs. Very much a person for whom the previously mentioned aphorism did indeed ring true. In her essay, "Sex and the Gimpy Girl" Mairs writes that
"Anyone who cannot accept as normal both a disabled woman's desire and the grief she feels when it is thwarted will never see her as fully human."
I accept them both equally. These days I find myself in her crippled shoes more and more. They're a bit small for me of course, but I adapt.
I'm wondering if Patchen felt that grief as well. I'm covering him with a solid film of Nancy now, but being bedridden notwithstanding, just the physical act of sex must have been excruciating. Remember, no painkillers. So did he abstain altogether by that point? Fueling a long dormant rage?
Desire can be formidable if left unfed or unfulfilled. You can attempt to ignore it by tethering it with your work. You can keep it preoccupied and engaged through art. You can have it chemically removed, or damaged or altered.
You cannot, however, remove it from your brain, your memory deposit box, the fact of it that is. That much remains. Will always remain.
George Mairs openly acknowledged his affairs because Nancy left him no choice but to, being the documentarian, the arbiter of embodiment politics, that she was. Maybe the affairs had something to do with her disability and her increasing dependence on him. Maybe they were reactionary, his asserting his masculinity as a result of her affairs. Or they could have had something to do with his cancer battles.
I'm in no position to comment one way or the other. Nevertheless they endured. They endured counseling and therapy. And like I mentioned before, I have no idea of the sexual politics between Kenneth and Miriam and whether or not they informed his work.
But I do know that Nancy Mairs never ceased in giving herself voice, to validate herself as a person, a woman with feelings and needs: physical and intellectual and spiritual. I mean really, how cold was she? Nancy wrote in the essay "Carnal Acts":
"What we aren't permitted to utter holds us each isolated from every other, in a kind of solipsistic thrall. Without any way to check our reality against anyone else's, we assume that our fears and shortcomings are ours alone."
Nancy was to find out that, disabled or not disabled, hers was but one of millions shouting, asking politely, whispering, seeking realignment with a solid sense of self, with her core.
Which brings me lastly to Joe Frank.
Who was, as a matter of fact, was born with clubbed feet (for those of you who thought his name appeared suddenly like the only AM radio station one can pick up at 2:30 am while driving across endless acres of corn somewhere in the Midwest). Mr. Frank passed as I was scratching out notes for this piece in mid-January. Colon cancer, along with other medical setbacks, took his physical body from us, just as this or that took Nancy, took Kenneth.
Joe Frank created for radio. His shows, monologues, and dramas took radio to dark corners and absurd café musings. You owe it to yourself to listen. Go listen.
But not quite yet. Hold on.
You see dear reader I believe that the field, the realm of poetry is so much larger than merely the written word. Poetry is oral: like a kiss or an argument, like admonishment and praise. Poetry is oral like Roberts or history, like surgery or Oral B toothbrushes. Oral like contraceptives, demulcents, and evaluations. Poetry is oral like lidocaine and X-rays. Like X-rays…
"You know Ceil, I don't find it amusing that you take every opportunity to converse in sign language with hearing impaired people ….and your large number of cousins in manual trades. I'm not interested in Albert who trained for years to be a nuclear physicist and ended up a token taker on the Triborough. Or your cousin Blaine who flunked out of medical school in 6 hours. At first I thought it was a sign of education but then I found myself becoming annoyed at your use of 'that' and 'which'. You would say "That which…" when either 'that' or 'which' would do. Then when you began to say 'And plus…' I can't stand people who say 'And plus…'
…I hope you get a toothache on the airplane. I hope you suffer a lingering agony. I hope you're audited indefinitely by the IRS. I hope you receive non-stop obscene psychotic phone calls directly into your brain. I hope when you go to the bathroom half of your internal organs are flushed into the city sanitary system….I hope you get a paper cut, that your stocks fail, your retirement fund is looted, the wind whistles through the cracks in your window, you bought the wrong tool, the instructions are in Japanese, you're condemned forever to listen to the same Don Ho record, your favorite show is cancelled, and you're unable to get cable, your license expires, your credit card is revoked, they forget you at your favorite bar, and when the aliens come they take only you….I grasp your wrist and draw you to the bed. You cry out, pulling back. I'm sorry, I say. I didn't realize I grabbed your wrist so hard. It's nothing you say and reach for my cigarette. You draw it to your lips, inhale deeply, then flick an ash onto my thigh. I flinch, reach behind your head and draw your face towards me. My teeth compress your upper lip until you pull back screaming my name. I'm sorry, I say. We lie down. For a thousand times you've playfully nibbled my ear yet tonight you appear to be eating my ear…." (Excerpted from the show "I Hate You Ceil" 1988)
That voice in your head.